The sudden sting of tears, unbidden. Grief leaking out along the edges of a prepared lid, supposedly clamped shut.
I have been surprised by joy often. Lately, it is surprising to find myself awakening to deep melancholy. I am not used to this. I think of myself as an optimist.
But I know that I live in a very protected world of my own design. I am educating myself intentionally. I am letting go of delusions.
“Do not avoid contact with suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world…”
― Thich Nhat Hahn
This morning, I awoke with a visceral feeling of sadness, of uncertainty, of betrayal and abandonment. I imagine it’s a response to the images and knowledge I’m absorbing through news media and films.
When emotions arise powerfully in me, I am taken by surprise. I was raised to regulate them with logic and religious faith. I have now learned to tolerate looking closely at them.
My housemate found a poem for me that helped me put the feeling into words. It is “Dover Beach”, by Matthew Arnold.
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
“…Find ways to be with those who are suffering by all means, including personal contact and visits, images, sounds. By such means, …awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world. If we get in touch with the suffering of the world, and are moved by that suffering, we may come forward to help the people who are suffering.”
― Thich Nhat Hahn
Perhaps surprise is simply the evidence that we live in a state of unknowing. We delude ourselves in order to shelter for a time in the idea that we are in control and can predict events and outcomes. The “cosmic 2x4s” of life will whack us upside the head from time to time and wake us up. It can be painful, surely. And it is beneficial as well. Once awake, we can acknowledge reality with greater perception and take actions that will be more specific and appropriate.
“Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.” ― Thich Nhat Hanh
It is my hope and faith that the sunshine of awareness can transform the devastation of our man-made storms into guiding visions of beauty and light.
May we awaken and become wise and kind.
Thank you, Ann-Christine, for inviting us to ponder Surprise.
Lately, the world seems to have fallen to new depths of misery. I’m sure ten examples have just popped into your mind. Into this awareness, I want to insert illustrations of the fact that at the same time, the world is more awesome than we can imagine. You’re having an experience that is very pleasant; you’re smiling; you’re happy. Suddenly, something happens that kicks it into another level. For example, my brother’s wedding reception. It takes place at the Winchester Mystery House, which is already very interesting and fun. Then, the Hora Loca begins to play and a new element is introduced….
We were not expecting that! Or that my 80-year old mother would join her on the dance floor. Here’s another…
I was working 5 different part-time jobs when I was offered a job as the Administrative Assistant at a conservation foundation. That meant that I would work in a farmhouse with just one other employee (the Executive Director) and help protect the natural environment. I took my camera to the top of one of the hills on our lands. It was the first day of June last year. The weather was perfect. The vistas were lush. And I was getting paid. Then, this swallowtail came by to welcome me.
The goodness of the real world transcends suffering, I have found. But you have to be open to receiving it as such. A simple, new breath can be the cherry on top of everything. Breathing in, I am alive. Breathing out, I am grateful.
Another morning of Spring snow, slowing changing to rain. The future comes to us haltingly, moment by moment. The human consciousness is capable of projecting thought far beyond this present moment. Other species don’t bother. The future is in the bud, the seed, the egg. They are content to let it belong there.
I sometimes don’t know what to do with my human consciousness of the future. It can cause anxiety and expectation, which is often very unsettling.
The boy who wore that shoe turned 29 years old this week. I’ve thought of his future for that much time, and more. Perhaps that awareness has been helpful. But sometimes, I wonder if it’s not as helpful as my awareness of the moment.
The flicker of the present, the warmth, the light. This is where we are most alive.
Have you ever had an experience of ego awakening? I have. The first one I remember happened as I was sitting in church on a Sunday morning, listening to a sermon. I was a child of about 7, I think, squirming about in the pew beside my family members. None of them were paying attention to me. They were simply silent. I suddenly became aware that I was there and that it was possible that I could ‘not be there’. I could not be born, for example, or I could be something else. I wondered why I wasn’t a rabbit, but a girl, Priscilla. I wondered why I was aware of being present for this sermon when I had sat through so many others and not been aware at all. I paid attention to the words of the Rector for a time, staring straight at him, but his talk was not as exciting as this simple new awareness. I figured he wasn’t really addressing me. I think it was Spring, the stained glass windows were open a bit, and the sun was shining. I sat facing the windows, away from the pulpit, and in rapt and embryonic ego transcendence.
My ego returned to center stage, though, shortly after that. I was the fourth daughter in this church-going family. I grew up with questions about whether or not I was special, with feelings of redundancy. My sisters were always more intelligent and talented and capable, having the edge of years of experience beyond mine. What did I have to offer that they couldn’t deliver more readily? And what would be my share of the resources available? Could my parents really give their attention and their love to all of us equally? Somehow, these questions kept arising for me, causing anxiety and an eagerness to convince myself that I was unique and uniquely loved. I spent 47 years in the church-going habit, seeking to resolve these questions in community with others looking for a similar comfort.
Let me insert a different image now. David Attenborough on Christmas Island, surrounded by a moving mass of red crabs. It’s nighttime and quite dark. Thousands of females, heavy-laden with eggs, are approaching the tide in order to release their burdens into the surf. The water turns reddish brown as a surge of life heads out to sea. Millions, billions of little babies set adrift. Redundancy and abundance. Life in a beautifully mysterious burst of activity, at a specific time and place, choreographed by some ancient awareness and acceptance. It is awesome – possibly divine. Are those babies unique and uniquely loved? The question seems moot. They ARE. No less. No more. (http://www.arkive.org/christmas-island-red-crab/gecarcoidea-natalis/video-00c.html – this is not David Attenborough, but at least it doesn’t have advertisements.)
We were driving out to the University last week to attend an enrichment class entitled “Understanding the Mysteries of Hibernation” when Steve popped in an audio book CD, The Power of Now. Eckhart Tolle began to describe his pivotal ego experience: For years my life alternated between depression and acute anxiety. One night I woke up in a state of dread and intense fear, more intense than I had ever experienced before. Life seemed meaningless, barren, hostile. It became so unbearable that suddenly the thought came into my mind, “I cannot live with myself any longer.” The thought kept repeating itself several times. Suddenly, I stepped back from the thought, and looked at it, as it were, and I became aware of the strangeness of that thought: “If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me – the I and the self that I cannot live with.” And the question arose, “Who is the ‘I’ and who is the self that I cannot live with?”
He went on to talk about the False Self that is edified, criticized, and mortified in our Western culture. I nodded in complete recognition. Don’t we call that the Ego? And then…I began to think of that ‘I’, that divinely authentic, fully alive, completely unique and inter-dependent being that each of us is. It was like a flash. My face lit up in excitement as I turned to Steve, “YES! I get it!” The things I had been hearing about enlightenment and no-self in Buddhism finally made sense. It’s not about the abasement of your being, it’s about the shift from False Self to ‘I’.
An hour later, I was listening to a lecture about mammals who suppress their metabolic systems, who turn down the fire of life in order to more effectively harmonize their energy with their changing environment. They go through cycles of torpor and arousal, staying alive (and in some cases, giving birth) without adding any food energy into their system – for 5 to 6 months! This is fascinating! Heart rate, respiratory rate, body temperature, digestion – all of these vital systems depressed by as much as 75%, and still, there is Life. The speaker discussed implications for biomedical research, but I am not as impressed by what humans might do with this knowledge as I am by the beings who live it. They are the authentic ‘I’; they are themselves, in a web of inter-dependence and autonomy, using and conserving their energy in response to what IS, what is available in the environment and what is intrinsic to their survival. Descriptions, terms, charts and statistics become gibberish. Even Science is a False Self. These are “stepping-stones”, as are all words, in Tolle’s estimation, serving to propel us to the next place in the movement of existence.
photo from sciencenews.org
The flow of Life, the flow of energy – what is that about? It’s not about clinging to stepping-stones: food, love, identity, thoughts, dogmas or practices. It’s about finding “the joy in change and movement” (as Steve would say), the dynamic of relating to an abundant, redundant, mysterious and unexpected Universe. It’s about waking up and being conscious of where we are right NOW…..and how beautiful and wonder-filled that place is. That consciousness is the beginning of Peace, an intuitive harmony with life that is unfortunately made dissonant by the noise of Falseness in this culture. What would it be like to give up that False Self more and more? Instead of giving up chocolate or the Internet for 40 days, I’m going to challenge myself to move more into ‘I’ existence. I don’t want to live with my self any longer. And that’s a good thing. 🙂 Namaste, Priscilla
1984 – It’s my wedding day. The weather is chilly and foggy in Northern California. I am too excited to sleep late. I have a date with my fiance for a morning meeting. He comes to pick me up at my parents’ house. My grandmother is aghast that we are seeing each other before arriving at the church; it’s just not done. But we know what we want. We want to focus on each other, on the meaning the day has for us personally before being caught up in the ritual. We park the car under some oak trees in the foothills. We decide it’s too damp and cold to walk, so we sit in the car and talk. We are calm and happy. He drops me off at the house. The next time I see Jim, he is standing at the altar, grinning. I take his hand. I notice it’s cold and clammy, so unlike the warm bear paw I expect. I smile at him. He’s caught up in excitement. The wedding mass is a long event. We emerge from the church and see sunlight for the first time that day. It doesn’t last long. The reception in the Parish Hall is intimate and bustling. It’s dark when we leave. I get home and change. My mother takes care of the dress. The station wagon is packed with my belongings, gifts, and leftover bottles of champagne. We drive south to Pebble Beach. I’m hungry. I hope the restaurant at the inn is still open by the time we get there. We find we are able to get sandwiches at the bar. We retire to our room. I feel so incredibly grown up; in one day, I’ve suddenly matured. I’m married. I’m 21 years old.
January 7 – this morning
The sun comes in the southeast window, and I begin to stir. As my mind brightens, I remember the day. Steve is sleeping beside me. I pull out the battered photo album from the box in the corner and settle back on the bed. Was it really cloudy that day? I flip through the pages in front of me, my mind turning over more leaves than my fingers. My phone beeps. My daughter is texting me to let me know she’s thinking of me today. Her baby face smiles at me from a photograph. She will be turning 30 in a few weeks. Steve begins to stir. I look at his face as his eyes open. “What are you doing here?” he asks. That’s a good question! “It’s a long story,” I laugh. But that doesn’t really answer the question. I am living. I am aware now of the present moment. As I look around, I see the beauty of this day, this year. The air is cold and dry. The trees outside are bare, the branches dusted with snow. I look down at my left hand. It is lined by swollen veins and wrinkles. There’s a brown spot just there. I have a ring on my index finger with a blue topaz heart set in it. No other rings. My fingers press Steve’s arm. “I am waking up. And you?” “I am Steve-ing.”
I found an essay called “The Body and The Earth” by Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America published in 1977. It is an extremely articulate and broad analysis of that “spherical network” that moves fluidly from agriculture, to Shakespeare and suicide, to sexual differences and divisions, and more. Here is an excerpt from the beginning which describes the mythic human dilemma:
“Until modern times, we focused a great deal of the best of our thought upon such rituals of return to the human condition. “Seeking enlightenment or the Promised Land or the way home, a man would go or be forced to go into the wilderness, measure himself against the Creation, recognize finally his true place within it, and thus be saved both from pride and from despair.
“Seeing himself as a tiny member of a world he cannot comprehend or master or in any final sense possess, he cannot possibly think of himself as a god.
“And by the same token, since he shares in, depends upon, and is graced by all of which he is a part, neither can he become a fiend; he cannot descend into the final despair of destructiveness.
“Returning from the wilderness, he becomes a restorer of order, a preserver. He sees the truth, recognizes his true heir, honors his forebears and his heritage, and gives his blessing to his successors. He embodies the passing of human time, living and dying within the human limits of grief and joy.”
Human limits. Humility. Our struggles, our desires, our wants, our hopes and feelings of elation are not the stuff to tilt the planet. There is a rightness outside of our sphere. I like to remember that perspective each time I encounter the “world wide web” of hype and OMG! and products and extracting resources and cruelty and pettiness.
Texture: that which we touch, which touches us, which we feel. Texture lets us know we’re alive, we’re here, we’re present and presently interacting. Texture teaches us that the world is sameness and contrast – smooth, cold, rough, warm – and solid as concrete.
How much do you pay attention to what you touch and what touches you?
When you become fully mindful of something’s presence, do you feel more fully alive?
Have you ever lost the concept of time as you stroked silky fur, or dipped your toes in flowing water?
Time pales in significance when I am present with something completely.
The photo challenge for this week invites us to share a photo that captures an entire story in a single frame. Here is my interpretation.
And what is the story? Is it merely a story of kids going to the zoo? Does the story that you see here have something to say about animals, including the human animal? Something about conservation? Something about family entertainment? Something about cages and behavior? Something about connecting to other life forms? Something about curiosity? Whose curiosity — the child’s or the lion’s?
I always have mixed feelings, some very strong, that arise when I visit a zoo. Sadness. Respect. Appreciation. Embarrassment. Regret. Awe. The story is pretty complex, and there are many characters. When we get caught up in our own narrative and forget that there is more than one, we limit our compassion, our awareness.
It’s interesting to overhear what mothers and teachers tell their children about the animals behind the glass. “Oh, look. There’s the Daddy lion and the Mommy lion and they’re doing _______!” Are you sure that’s what they are and what they’re doing? Have you projected your own story onto them? Do you often do that and teach your children to do that? What might you learn if you tried to look at their behavior through unbiased eyes?
You see, this story gets pretty complicated. It’s worth looking into.
Possessing a human brain is no picnic. The cumbersome chunk of gray matter is quite the dictator. It wants to know: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? It shines the light in our eyes, makes us squint and squirm until we come up with an answer. And “I don’t know” won’t appease its inquisition. Somewhere in our distant evolutionary history, this dictatorship must have presented some advantage to survival. Possibly it pressed us to a more efficient way to find food or use tools or attract a desirable mate. When the interrogation continues after it has served its immediate purpose, it becomes rather annoying and can create anxiety, frustration, torment and suffering. Think of a 4-year-old asking “Why?” to every explanation offered. It never ends. When you shout back, “I DON’T KNOW!” do you feel you’ve failed and slink off to ponder your existence? (For a good example of this “insane deconstruction” peppered with ‘adult language’, check outcomedian Louis C.K. in this clip.)
Humor aside, the suffering is universal. We have all lived the anguish of a mystery at some point. As I write this, I am thinking of all the people whose loved ones disappeared on the Malaysian jet that has been missing for 11 days. Unanswered and unanswerable questions must plague them. The few photos of their grief that I’ve seen are hard to bear. Add to that circle connected to those 239 people all of the families of military personnel MIA throughout history, all of the families of travelers to foreign countries in unstable political climates who never returned, all of the parents of children abducted and gone without a trace. The stories of devastation are heart-breaking and inevitable. The common denominator is The Great Mystery – Death. Ironically, it is the most mundane mystery as well. We will all be touched by it, every one. And we know it. The two deaths that I experienced first hand were not shrouded by any great cloud of darkness. My sister and my husband both died right beside me: my sister in the driver’s seat of a car, my husband in our bed. They were not ‘missing’ by any means. And yet, I will never have the answer to basic questions like, “What were they feeling?” “When exactly did they lose consciousness?” “Was I to blame?”
Mystery is the Truth. We do not know. We delude and comfort our demanding brains in a parade of ideas. When that effort is expended, can we accept and live with Mystery? What does that feel like? How do I do that?
You see, again the questions surface, the never-ending tide of the probing lobe of consciousness. Maybe some day that flow will be replaced by the still, mirrored surface of a quiet mind.